Girl Guides: Kathryn Parsons on destroying the myths around digital coding

Kathryn Parsons, co-founder of digital training start-up Decoded, is on a mission to destroy the myths around digital coding and drive tech education in schools. She speaks to The Drum’s Jessica Davies about why women would make great coders and her own trip “down the rabbit hole”.

Kathryn Parsons, co-founder of Decoded

A 30-minute meeting can change your life. That’s what happened to Kathryn Parsons, 31-year-old co-founder of London-based Decoded. A brainstorm with another industry veteran, former executive creative director of TBWA Steve Henry, sowed the seeds for an exciting new start-up which swiftly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon – Decoded.

“There are a few 30-minute meetings that can change your life forever, and that’s what happened. After my meeting with Steve it was like going down the rabbit hole,” says Parsons.

Dedicated to stripping away the fear and mystery behind code – the language that underpins all technology – by teaching people to “code in a day”, Decoded has had over 500 companies sign up, from national newspapers and broadcasters to boards of FMCG companies and individuals including Tech City CEO and former VP EMEA for Facebook Joanna Shields.

At the heart of the scheme is Code in a Day, a course designed to cut out the fear and misunderstanding around how to write code for digital platforms, and in doing so, ‘empower’ the recipients. It has since spun out to include Social Data, Data Visualisation, Cyber security in a day and Future Platforms in a day, the latter of which teaches people to code for future platforms including wearable computer Google Glass.

The idea for the start-up was born from Parsons’ own feeling of “illiteracy” when it came to coding. Having studied French, German, Japanese, Mandarin and ancient classics, Parsons was adept at speaking more languages than most – yet she felt there was a “black hole” when it came to possibly the most important language in our collected future – that of digital code. It was this that spurred her into seeking partners to create Decoded.

“If you’re a creative person with an idea you could sketch it, but if you’re a digital one you can’t – so you can’t see what the nuts and bolts of it are. This gives people the ability to look at an idea and actually break it down and decode it. We knew no-one had any time, and it felt totally bonkers – the idea of teaching someone to code in a day – even today it probably sounds like an over claim, but we deliver over and against it,” she says.

Parsons is passionate about changing the image of coding to inspire more women into the field. “Technology is this huge open, welcoming, creative environment, yet it feels exclusive, niche, the preserve of the few, and that’s totally unacceptable.

“There are certain myths around coding. People presume you have to be a guy, geeky, good at maths, and have an engineering background. But actually I think what makes a great coder is someone who is creative likes problem solving, is patient and collaborative. I don’t see those as exclusively male traits. Women don’t see technology as aspirational, but it’s actually very creative and it’s empowering to have that vocabulary – that language and knowledge,” she says.

Now the course has an even split between male and female students, which Parsons sees as a real victory. Yet it’s not just women that should be encouraged to learn coding, and Decoded is working with Google’s policy teams on how to redevelop coding tools for politicians and is also working on a major project to bring coding to the disadvantaged, according to Parsons.

“Access to technology is the most liberalising, democratising tool you can have and yet ironically it is driving a deeper wedge between the wealthier and less wealthy areas of the world. Broadly speaking, access allows you to innovate, be faster and better, and that’s where business is going,” she says.

Parsons’ own passion and thirst for knowledge, twinned with her infectious enthusiasm, have equipped her with an unwavering drive to help push forward the technology education agenda. She will now turn her focus to Decoded’s next tech education project which is to launch a not-for-profit Code Education foundation led by Decoded co-founder Alasdair Blackwell, to help train teachers of all subjects how to bring coding into their lessons.

Parsons describes coding as “the great leveller”. People from all kinds of companies and sectors have signed up to the courses. “We have even had a bee keeper,” she says with clear delight. “One day we had the EMEA head of PR for a huge tech company sitting next to a builder who had driven down from Manchester. You think they have nothing in common but actually they have everything in common because code is this great leveller.”

Perhaps part of the reason for the success of the course, each of which takes a whole year to develop, is the high standards by which its founders run it. Parsons herself says that “if people aren’t high-fiving and clapping at the end of the course then there is something wrong”.

She believes now is a brilliant time to enter the field, while programmers and coders are highly sought-after and offered well-paid positions.

“Programmers are being hired out like superstars, and you can even be part time because it is so well paid, it’s a great time to be part of it.”

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